A new perspective on Vilhelm Moberg’s masterpiece
Erik Poppe’s film The Emigrants premieres in Norway
It’s been called the biggest Swedish film in decades, recently making a big splash in Norway with its premiere there. It’s already been mentioned a few times in this issue—but there certainly is a lot to say about it. And one thing is for sure: I had to see Norwegian producer Erik Poppe’s new film based on the classic story of The Emigrants.
In his report on the recent film festival in Haugesund, where The Emigrants had its Norwegian premiere, Geir Mæland touched on the challenges and successes of reducing over five hours of story known to many from the Jan Troell films of the 1970s, featuring Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann. Add to that the 2,000 pages of source material in the Vilhelm Moberg’s cycle of novels, considered to be a masterpiece of Swedish literature. (See
But it’s important to remember that the new version of The Emigrants is not remake of the earlier films in a true sense—it is based on them and offers something new—the perspective of Kristina. As in the fantastic musical Kristina from Duvemåla by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvæus, Kristina is front and center in the new movie. The storyline focuses on her, to the point that her husband, Karl Oskar, almost appears as a supporting character. Throughout the new film, we see the world through Kristina’s eyes and literally hear her thoughts in a stream of consciousness narrative.
“What is a home?” is the question she asks in the beginning of the film, which opens with the Nilsson family headed on their journey to the ship in Karlshamn in southern Sweden. We see flashbacks of their life in the province of Småland, with its stony farmland, their poverty and deprivation, and the friends and relatives they leave behind. This is a family saga, and the camera rarely goes away from the core family of Karl Oskar, Kristina, and their children. Dedicated to “all the women who dared,” it is, above, all, the story of wife and mother, a brave young woman’s outer and inner journey to self-realization.
The time constraints of the film simply do not allow for the inclusion of the panorama of characters we know from before: Robert, Karl Oskar’s daydreaming younger brother; Kristina’s uncle Danjel, the fundamentalist pastor; the farmhand Arvid; just to name a few that are missed in Poppe’s film. Because of this, some important aspects of the emigrant story are lost: the second son who couldn’t inherit the farm and lapses into fantasies to escape the harshness of reality and those who left because of religious persecution. But a red thread remains in the condensed story of the nuclear family: the search for a new home where they can find a better life.
One central character remaining is Ulrika of Västergöhl, the parish prostitute, who leaves with her daughter for a fresh start. Life has not been kind to Ulrika, who was abused as a young girl. She is an interesting character with her robustness; more than anyone else, Ulrika is a survivor with a zest for life. She has been a victim of the conventional constraints of Swedish society, which is driven by the dogma of the Lutheran Church. Symbolically, with her wild curly hair and her bright clothing, she is the most colorful character in the film. In the end, it is through her kindness and humanity that Kristina’s eyes are opened to a life of freedom and individual fulfillment.
Poppe’s Emigrants film has received mixed criticism, both in Sweden and Norway, and I can concur with much of it. Many saw the film as lacking nuance in its representation of the Swedish emigrant family, while others felt that simply too much was left out of the story. Perhaps too little of the “stones and starvation” of life in Sweden is pictured; we see only glimpses of the motivations behind why Kristina and Karl Oskar chose to leave, and the hardships of their life in their new home in the Minnesota wilderness are glossed over.
And then, a good deal of poetic license is taken in the depiction of the Indigenous people the Swedish family is faced with in Minnesota. The native American people Kristina encounters are portrayed in a way that fits with current politically correct discourse. A kind native American woman comes to Kristina and her daughter’s aid in the end, symbolized in a gift of a warm cloak for her daughter, as the Swedish woman begins to overcome her fears and prejudices.
The cinematography is a definite weak point of the new film. Many critics see it as simply too gray—literally. At times, one wishes that more of the landscape, both in Sweden and America, could have been featured. We miss the idyllic scenery of the Småland countryside and the similar setting they find in Minnesota. The vastness of their journey across the American continent is also underrepresented. Finally, the lighting in many of the interior scenes is at times too dark to even show the facial expressions of the actors, although it could be argued that this gloomy environment was Kristina’s world in both a realistic and figurative sense.
For Norwegians who have recently shown interest in the voyage of the Restauration, the scenes at sea are minimal. The entire trip across the Atlantic seems to pass by so quickly that you would have thought that travelers arrived in New York after a week or so at sea. There is no endless nausea to endure; the scenes of sickness and death are minimized to the degree that you simply do not have time to emphasize with the grief and loss the emigrants endured.
But, perhaps above all, the language of the film presents a problem for some Swedish viewers. Initially, one wonders why Kristina and Karl Oskar are speaking a new-age variant of Stockholm dialect instead of the regional dialect of southern Sweden, which feels unauthentic. In the past, there was a similar reaction to the casting of Norwegian Liv Ullmann in the role of Kristina, but in that case, her Norwegian accent felt less jarring because of her appearance and the strength of her iconic performance.
This is not the case with the new film. In some instances, it is difficult for even native speakers of Swedish to understand what the actors are saying. The pronunciation is too unclear, the delivery too fast and slurred. So much is lost from the otherwise very commendable performances of the lead actors—Lisa Carlehed as Kristina, Gustaf Skarsgård as Karl Oskar, and Tove Lo as Ulrika—simply because it is so difficult to understand them. All of this will not, however, be a problem for English-speaking audiences, who will see the film with subtitles. An upside may be that younger Scandinavian viewers can identify with the linguistic world of the characters.
One of the strong points of the film is its music, which serves to underscore the emotional state of the film’s characters and move the plot forward. In Sweden, compositions in minor keys emphasize the melancholy of their existence, whereas in America, tones in major key are at times heard to underline a new optimism and hope. The use of traditional instruments helps to create an authentic mood.
As The Emigrants comes to a close, a contemporary song is heard, as is often the case with many Nordic films today. At first, I thought, “Oh, no,” but I found myself taken in by the lyrics sung by the Iranian-Swedish singer Laleh, herself once an emigrant.
“It was here I became myself, it was here I became free,” she sings. As the credits roll, historical footage of emigrants through the decades are interspersed to bring us to the present day. This is Kristina’s story and the story of so many emigrants through time. It is a saga that has enriched the lives of so many who have made the journey and those who have welcomed them to a new home.
The Emigrants is now available for streaming in North America via Viaplay, available through Xfinity X1 or Flex.
Also see Relevant then, relevant now in the October 7, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.
This article originally appeared in the October 7, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.